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Orphaned wells: Environmental, visual pollution for Southwest Indian Country

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(New Mexico News Connection) Tribal communities, including those in New Mexico, can now apply for grant funding and direct assistance to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells across Indian Country. The U.S. Department of Interior is accepting applications for $55 million meant to address plugging, remediation and reclamation of these abandoned wells, along with soil and habitat restoration.

Paul Reed, preservation archeologist with Archeology Southwest, said there are almost 3.5 million orphaned wells nationwide - and in the Southwest, they pose a significant threat to cultural resources.

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"We have less in the West proportionally, but our landscapes are open, so I think the visual impacts, and the cultural impacts, the impacts to Tribes and folks living nearby, are just that much greater," he said.

A recent report by the group highlights the impact of these wells to frontline communities and sacred and cultural sites in such places as the Greater Chaco Landscape. Reed said New Mexico is home to some 2,000 abandoned wells. More than 400 are within 30 miles of national parks, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Orphaned or abandoned wells are known to jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, seeping toxic chemicals, emitting dangerous pollutants and harming wildlife. But Reed said public concern and subsequent government oversight is still relatively new.

"If these were put in more than 40 years ago now, or 45 years ago, they probably didn't have any environmental or cultural work," he continued. "A lot of the agencies hadn't really figured how they were going to actually manage those things."

Across the country, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a total of $4.7 billion to address orphaned wells. In the program's first phase, the Interior Department awarded 40 million in grants to ten Tribes. Applications are being accepted through May 14th.